Friday, February 29, 2008

February 29, relevant at all?

February 29 is the signature day of leap years. Indeed, we all know that February 29 occurs only once every 4 years, and we also know that the addition of such day is a result of an adjustment of our calendar to the revolution of our planet about the sun: As a terrestrial year takes 365 days and 6 hours, those hours are accumulated for a period of four years, at the end of which they add up to 24 hours. That is one day, which in a more familiar language is known worldwide as the 'leap day' or February 29.

Yes, all of the facts mentioned above are widely known, therefore, there is little need to write more about them, considering the plenty of specialized publications that explain very well the origins of leap years. However, there is a question that comes to my mind about February 29: As it is a day that occurs only every 4 years, what historically relevant events have happened on such date?.

It didn't take me too long to do a bit of research about it. I found in Wikipedia a very good list of historical events that have happened in February 29. Even though such article mentions several events related to the leap day, I'll just highlight the ones that appear to be more interesting to me:

  • A new course for a country (February 29, 2004): Jean Bertrand Aristide is well remembered as the first president to be elected democratically in Haiti, back in 1991. Eventually, Aristide got involved in scandals of fraudulent elections as he got elected for a second non-consecutive term in the year 2000. The discontent of a bunch of Haitians and the emergence of rebel forces in strategic points in the country finally forced Aristide to flee Haiti and resign as president on February 29, 2004, leaving Boniface Alexandre to succeed him as interim president.
  • Destruction of a city (February 29, 1960): The city of Agadir, in Morocco, lived a very sad leap day in 1960 when it experienced the strongest earthquake in the history of the country. The result was devastating: 15,000 people were killed in the incident and some other 35,000 lost their homes. It was necessary to rebuild most of the city.
  • Recognition to science in times of war (February 29, 1940): Ernest Lawrence, an American scientist, invented a device known as cyclotron, which he patented in 1934. His invention was a particle accelerator that would later acquire great importance in the field of nuclear physics. For his contributions, he was awarded with a Nobel Prize in Physics on February 29, 1940, in a ceremony performed in Berkeley, California, due to the development of World War II in Europe.
Needless to say, February 29 has special importance to some people, especially those who were born on such date, or those who remember the death of special people in the leap day. There is a very comprehensive list of births and deaths occurred on a February 29th in Wikipedia as well.

The moral of this story is that, even when February 29 occurs only once every 4 years, it is still a day in which world keeps moving, important things may happen, and is just as relevant as any other calendar day. Enjoy the day.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Progress: The good, the bad, the ugly

Times change, world does too. It is true that nothing lasts forever, thus people, ideology, technologies, regimes, likes, and ideologies keep evolving, giving rise to what we most commonly know as progress. That's a natural cycle of things, and no matter how hard a few people try to stop that, history has shown that progress will keep going its way.

This week is leaving us with two very interesting cases of people who try to stop progress, and people who advocate for it. Who'll be the good, the bad and the ugly?

Example 1: People who try to stop progress.

Fidel Castro is a good example of people who fought for progress first, but tried to stop that later. When he led the Cuban Revolution that forced Fulgencio Batista's rule out of Cuba in 1958, he had a simple thought in mind: to bring prosperous times for his country (i.e., progress) through the evolution from a dictatorial regime to a socialist one. Initially, his plans succeeded properly, as he gained power over Cuba and implemented his socialist ideas in the country. But then, Fidel Castro lost the route to which he wanted to lead his country. Mr. Castro forgot that progress also means transition, and he became an autocratic dictator in a non-democratic system that after many years became one of the most stagnant economies in the world.

The good times for Fidel Castro also went by. The now-ailing Cuban leader is now 81 years old, and this week he decided to step down as president of Cuba, after 49 years in office. Today, a very dim light of democracy was seen again in Cuba, as after many years, the voters finally had elections in which they could choose from many candidates, and not only Fidel Castro himself. Yes, the result was less than surprising, as Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and interim president of Cuba for the past few months, became Cuba's new president. The aftermath? It's still early to know, but most likely Cuba will keep living in a socialist rule. However, today's election proved that progress is there, and Cuba is slowly approaching to the path of democracy that can take still many years to reach, but it will certainly be reached.

Example 2: People who promote progress.

Progress is not only about certain characters out there who try to stop it, but it is also about people who promote it. There are many of them out there. Sir Richard Branson has constantly been one of the individuals who advocate for progress with the introduction of new
products and services through the many branches of his commercial emporium Virgin, which from time to time has transformed the way in which businesses are done.

Today, Virgin Atlantic (Virgin's branch in the airlines industry) decided to take a huge step forward in the mysterious area of alternative fuels by flying an experimental flight. A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 took off from Heathrow international airport in London, with no passengers on board. It landed safely later in Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam. With this flight, Virgin Atlantic proved the feasibility of greener fuels in the air transport industry: One of the four General Electric motors of the plane was fed with biofuel (a blend of 80% regular fuel and 20% coconut and babassu oil), whereas the other three motors used conventional fuel, in case anything went wrong.

The flight was successful, although some technical results and data of the flight will be analyzed in the upcoming weeks to determine whether the biofuel's performance was as expected. Nevertheless, it is an important step that can eventually reduce air transportation industry's carbon footprint dramatically. It is also said that the biofuel is made from renewable natural sources, which, in case of being truth, will help to fight a potential oil drought in the planet... and many of its collateral consequences too.

With some information from The Globe and Mail and The Associated Press.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The troubled birth of a State

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that Kosovo announced today its independence from Serbia, as this rumor has been flowing through the mass media for a few days now. What makes the independence of Kosovo different than that of other countries, is that it was a unilateral decision, and that the Serbians never agreed to renounce sovereignty over the province of Kosovo, let alone to recognize it as an independent country.

As controversial as it gets, the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo has been welcomed by some around the world, criticized by others, and condemned by some others. For instance, and independent Kosovo has been backed by the United States and some of the European Union members, such as Italy, England and France. On the other hand, Serbia and Russia have fiercely opposed the recognition of Kosovo as an independent country. Russians specifically says that the recognition of Kosovo's unilaterally-proclaimed independence would be a 'bad example' for other separatist movements around the world.

The dilemma of the recognition of Kosovo as an independent nation won't only remain in the Balkans. In fact, it promises to bring lots of debate to other nations and organizations, such as the European Union. By now, some EU member nations, including Spain, Greece and Cyprus, have expressed their opposition to an 'immediate recognition' of Kosovo as a sovereign country. Why? Because these countries also have separatist movements active in their territories, and recognition of an independent Kosovo would give those groups a cue on what to do next.

It looks that, after all, the Russians got it right: Not only the independence of Kosovo wasn't agreed with Sebia and wasn't even discussed in the United Nations, but the international recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign nation would bring lots of trouble to countries currently dealing with similar problems. Here are some of the most notorious cases around the world:

  • China and the separatist movements in Tibet and Taiwan.
  • Russia and the separatist movement in Chechenia.
  • Spain and the separatist movements in the Basque Country and Catalunya.
  • Cyprus and the self-proclaimed republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey).
  • Turkey, Syria and Iraq and the separatist movement in Kurdistan.
  • Georgia and the separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
  • Azerbaijan and the separatist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Moldova and the separatist movement in Transnistria.
  • Somalia and the separatist movement in Somaliland.
  • Canada and the separatist movement in Quebec.
Regardless of these facts and threats to stability in some countries around the world, it looks that Kosovo, where about 90% of the population is Albanian, is decided to take a step forward and seek recognition after seceding without the approval of the Serbians. After all, they still remember those days in which Serbia, led by Slobodan Milosevic, undertook ethnic cleansing tasks against the Albanian minority. Seen from such perspective, an independent Kosovo would be fair.

This is a story that began many years ago and that has reached a quite foreseeable point. Now the only thing that is certain about this matter is uncertainty itself. Will Kosovo's dream of independence be recognized by nations around the world? No one knows, but time will say.

With some information from The Globe and Mail and AP.
Photo by AP

Friday, February 15, 2008

The 'choking game'

When Albert Einstein said the famous quote 'only two things are infinite: universe and human stupidity, but I'm not sure about the former', he couldn't have been more accurate in his observations. There are people out there who are constantly making great efforts to prove us that human stupidity is indeed infinite, and the creativity to show us that has no limits.

Today I heard about a game that is more stupid than any other game I've ever heard of in my life (yes, believe it or not, it is way worse than 'Are you smarter than a 5th grader?' or even than 'Subway jump'). The procedure of the game is easy: the 'player' intentionally suffocates or strangulates himself or herself (alone or with the help of another kid) to induce a loss of consciousness caused by the reduction of oxygen in the brain. The goal is to reach a state of euphoria or a brief high. This practice is commonly known as the 'choking game', although it is also known by other names such as the 'brownout game', the 'pass-out game', or the 'fainting game'.

Of course, the practice of this so-called game has had its consequences. A report by CBC indicates that 82 kids in the U.S., aged 6 to 19, have died in the last decade as a result of this amazingly idiotic pastime. Moreover, the activity has also spread to neighbouring Canada, where a few more kids have passed away trying to reach a 'high' that way. In most of those reported deaths, the 'player' was allegedly playing alone, however there are some skeptics who point out that the number of deaths is even higher, but those cases are not always reported. In any case, a study published in the U.S. concludes that the practice of the 'choking game' is on the rise, so we can expect to hear more about the game and its intrepid players who seek euphoria, and from time to time they find their own deaths in their pursuit.

I wonder if the kids who have died while playing the 'choking game' did indeed reach the state of euphoria that they wanted so badly. We will obviously never know. But, as those kids probably didn't receive any recognition for the achievement of their feat, I'd propose to give each a Darwin Award for their effort (and a honorable mention to all those who have played the game and lived to tell about it). Nevertheless, more seriously and more importantly, our education systems and moral values should be modified to avoid having children exploring extremely dark horizons.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Ignorance is a gift?

Watching the TV today made me remember some of the reasons for which I've never liked to watch TV (except for sports). One of the reasons that keeps me away from TV is the more and more decadent shows that can be found in every channel: some of them appear to be committed to cheering people's stupidity, humiliating them live, and from time to time rewarding their ignorance and idiocy.

When I heard about Big Brother, I found the core concept of that show pretty boring. I thought that no worse shows could be ever shown on TV, until I found about Donald Trump's The Apprentice. Public humiliation was the value offering of the show to the audience, which made me feel sorry about the poor rookies that appeared there only to be humiliated by Mr. Trump. Could it get worse than that? Well, now I am convinced that TV has reached a new low after I found a game show that made me both laugh at the contestants and feel pity of the cheap and hollow TV products with which some audiences can satisfy their entertainment needs. The name of the game show was as pathetic as its contents: Are you smarter than a 5th grader?.

For people who hadn't had the unpleasant experience of watching that game (or people who live in countries where TV programs are thought for more educated audiences, as opposed to most countries in the Americas), I'll briefly explain what the game is about: A random, adult contestant has to answer 5th grade questions, accompanied by 5th grade children who are there to test their knowledge against the adult's. To make the long story short, the adult contestant can win up to US $1 million for answering all questions correctly.

As I am a strong believer that images can speak more than a thousand words, I found an excerpt of the show in Youtube and I'm embedding it here so you can have a little taste of the idiotic show for your amusement:

I'm not against people who want to be humiliated and shamed in public. I believe in free will, if their choice is to act ridiculously and they enjoy nationwide audiences jeering at them, I accept that. What I find very unacceptable is for TV corporations to reward those attitudes. Why on Earth should any average person, who attended at least high school, be awarded with 1 million dollars for hardly remembering basic knowledge on TV?

That is extremely painful if you think it this way: There are classic game shows like Jeopardy, in which the contestants are normally highly-educated individuals who are expected to demonstrate a vast knowledge about a variety of topics (and of course, the questions are tough). An average contestant of Jeopardy will get a few thousands of dollars in the game, whereas its counterpart in Are you smarter than a 5th grader? will get at least US$ 25,000 for answering about three questions that might be as simple as "what is the capital of the United States?". Needless to say, I can hardly remember contestants who have walked away from Jeopardy with prizes nearing the million dollars.

The decadence of TV is notorious, and it's fueled by the low standards that audiences have accepted from TV producers throughout the years. It is true that the broadcasting corporations are also businesses, and if the audience accepts from them garbage, they'll continue to produce garbage so the audience keeps consuming from them. It is just a cycle that will keep decaying until people redefine their entertainment quality standards.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Super Bowl XLII aftermath: A "giant" win

The aspirations of finishing a perfect season were gone for the New England Patriots after being beaten by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Let's be honest about it: As a Bills fan, I've never hidden my lack of sympathy for the Pats, and seeing their aspirations for a perfect season fading away in the last few seconds of the game delighted me greatly.

In a way, I feel sorry for Tom Brady, who has proven to be a great player and team leader throughout his career, and who would had been a good recipient for the feat of a perfect season. In the other hand, unfortunately the Pats are not only Tom Brady himself, but it's a team that includes other arrogant personalities like Bill Belichick, the coach whose illegal videotaping habits used in the past to win games and even super bowls (as he has been accused of doing against the Saint Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, in the year 2002) have brought lots of doubts about the legitimacy of his team's previous achievements in the eyes of many football fans and critics worldwide.

In any case, the Super Bowl XLII won't be remembered for the high quality of the game. In fact, it was well below my expectations: what promised to be an offensive game with lots of points and outstanding plays turned to be a defensive and monotonous game during the first three quarters, in which only 10 points were scored overall. Only the last quarter could be classified in the category of high quality football, as it contained some emotion and offensive actions, which resulted in the scoring of the remaining 21 points that made the final 17-14 win for the Giants.

Eli Manning, quarterback for the New York Giants, was selected as the most valuable player of the game. For this, the last couple of seasons could well be remembered in the future as the Manning dynasty, as the other Manning brother, Peyton, won the Super Bowl XLI when the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears. Moreover, Peyton Manning was also selected the most valuable player of the superbowl in that occasion.

Congratulations to the Giants and their fans for their terrific victory